“For me loving a country means loving its people,” -Meseret Kassahun (PhD)

Peace building and conflict transformation are such complicated topics when it comes to a country like Ethiopia. Not to mention the decades long, protracted wars and conflicts that emaciated the country in the past. Ethiopia has passed through series of conflict and unrest since 2015. This calls for the need for strong action to durably address conflict including its root causes.

Dr. Meseret Kassahun (PhD) studied her first and second degrees here in Addis Ababa University. She has earned her Ph.D. in Social Work from Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago. From 2012-2017, Dr. Meseret has worked as an Assistant Professor at School of Social Work, Addis Ababa University and has been working as an independent researcher/consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya since then.

Dr. Meseret is passionate about social justice advocacy, inclusive development, and is interested to contribute in the efforts to solve inequalities. She is a vibrant leader and enthusiastic in facilitating social change. As an experienced researcher, she has designed and conducted various research on gender and women empowerment, on gender based violence, on governance, on child protection and many more, with persisting interests in social protection, migration, as well as peace building and conflict transformation. With this rich background, Dr. Meseret is capable of suggesting contextually relevant evidence-based recommendations for policy making and implementation.

The has interviewed Dr. Meseret recently to share her views on the conflict that unfolded in the country for over a year now, how to sustainably address the persistent and many other sporadic conflicts that flare up in the country. She strongly argues that all conflicting parties and other stakeholders should come together and work on reconciliation. For a genuine reconciliation to come, she underlines the importance of prioritizing justice. Enjoy reading!

Could you tell us how the current conflict in our country affected us and how the conflict and its consequences should be addressed?

I would say the current conflict that we are in, who started it and why was it was started, it was unnecessary. It should not have resulted in a full-fledged war. Although we pass through this very saddening process for a year I strongly believe there is still a chance for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. But for that to happen the truth has to be exposed. All the conflicting parties should sit together and accept their mistakes and tell the truth as a path towards reconciliation.

In terms of political elites in the past, you see many people who had a terrible experience with Ethiopian leader in different capacities, and yet, you see said leaders walking on the streets with freedom. This shows us there is a forgiving culture in our society, provided that parties that started the war fundamentally acknowledge that they made a mistake and they have to tell the truth. What is going on the social media is a different kind of reality that is fake. We Ethiopians know what happened. They also know what happened. So they have to tell the truth. And after the war especially after 4 November [2020], we should also know what happened in Tigray. So that has to be told.

Now since last June after the withdrawal of Ethiopian Defense Forces, with a unilateral decision of the government to give peace a chance for farmers in the region, TPLF forces expanded the war to Afar and Amhara regions which is a new height. We know from our networks that live in those regions the atrocities committed by TPLF forces, destruction of properties, the dehumanization process, particularly raping of women and children and the elders that have to be told. So I used to hear from TPLF activists and supporters that Tigray women were raped. I do not support anything related to using sexual violence as a weapon. I am an activist for peace, which means there is a UNSC resolution issued in 2000 called women in peace and security agenda that completely acknowledges that using sexual violence as a weapon is a war crime. It was absolutely important that the Ethiopian government admitted that some soldiers committed rape in Tigray, it is a grave necessity that ENDF takes accountability, it is the right thing to do. The number may vary but the government acknowledges wrongs committed. It is not a popular move for governments to publicly admit and penalize their soldiers for war crimes like this, but our prime minister himself and the Ethiopian government took responsible measures. we like it or not we are connected globally. Ethiopia is a member of the UN. She is one of the founding members. So for me, whether it is a Tigrayan woman or Amhara, Afar whoever committed it should face justice, and victims need to receive proper resources, regardless of where they live. I strongly believe that.

So those advocates of TPLF or sympathizers used to say Tigray women were raped. Why don’t they cry out now for the other women? Are we accepting crimes when it is committed by our people? Those are some moral grey areas that we see that we have to discuss. If I stand for justice and equality, for human rights whether Amhara, Tigray, I should be the voice of the voiceless, for those who face the worst during war. For this to happen all things should be acknowledged, told or exposed. Whoever committed all those especially on the human rights side whether it is government officials, informal groups who ever have arms should be disciplined, be punished.

Peace cannot happen unless justice is served. If there is no justice peace cannot come. You probably will work to silence some voices or you might keep it quiet. TPLF has been in power for nearly 30 years, they have committed a lot of things. Are we going to forget that? No; that has to be also discussed and served. And a true conversation has to happen between our among political elites and communities of everything that has happened in the past 30+ years, then we can start the process of reconciliation.

Now every time you see from social media TPLF activists say “War on Tigray”, so an ordinary Tigrayan who lives in Tigray probably is deceived by this narrative. There is a grudge against the other community. Since last June what all TPLF forces have been doing is atrocities causing trauma, destruction and also dehumanizing in Amhara and Afar. So reconciliation should happen among these communities. So there is one group against at least two communities, Amhara and Afar.

At the same time, they also claim that Amhara militia has been doing some attacks, looking at UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission joint report. So both parties have done something terrible. That has to be again discussed, negotiated. Fortunately, in our communities, there are certain cultural practices of mediation and peacemaking, and by using those cultural practices we can establish a reconciliation process like we have done for generations. But peacebuilding cannot happen unless all these processes have happened as a precondition. Peacebuilding is a process. It is not an end by itself. Then after that peacebuilding can continue.

Reconstruction is not about building roads, building industries that are destroyed, but rather on healing the trauma we are currently experiencing. The human aspect of the conflict, the trauma grief, the loss and the pain of this war has to be dealt with properly and responsibly if we are to move forward.

As far as communities are alive and healthy and there is peace, and we can generate the material resources anytime to rebuild everything that is destroyed. We cannot treat trauma caused by war the same way, we have to address it head on so that communities can begin healing process. The trauma healing itself needs time and also should be handled properly, professionally and then the economy will follow.

The issue of reconciliation and peacebuilding has been an agenda in our country for decades. Can we talk of peacebuilding and conflict transformation in the absence of war?

The way I conceptualize peace is not a lack of war. Lack of war may be perceived as peaceful; but not necessarily. For true peacebuilding to happen again I am coming back to justice. Justice has to be served. Unless and otherwise social and economic justice happens in a community you cannot have peace. Giving peace a chance and ceasefire all those things are important for the peace process to start; but it is not an end by itself. That is why I am talking about true reconciliation. Those are the preconditions for peacebuilding.

Every party involved should sit and accept what they did was the reason for these atrocities, casualties and destruction of properties. After that, they have to be willing to reconcile. The past is past. Whoever did this is wrong. The reconciliation process should be genuine and we have to work hard to get to this stage. It requires genuine dialogue between conflicting parties. It should not be used as a means to secure a temporary ceasefire, or further other agendas. For instance, a month ago I heard General Tsadkan, one of the leaders of TPLF said “there is no peace talk now because we already finished the war” And other TPLF members like Getachew Reda now calling for the peace process to happen to give peace a chance we are withdrawing. Peace is not a toy you want to play it when you want.

This shows me that the parties are not genuinely ready to end the traumatic experience of their communities to end atrocities, to end all these unnecessary destructions of properties. So they are just buying time. What does that mean? When you lose if you are asking for peace which means are you trying to buy time so that you can reorganize yourself and then arm yourself and come back again to attack? All parties have to be ready and want to come to the reconciliation table.

Is it not too late?

No it is not too late. Before the war what I know from 2018 to 2020 there were efforts, I read and discuss with concerned individuals. Some efforts have been made. I remember peace mothers went to Tigray and were crying in front of the leader, and religious leaders were talking to them. But given the circumstances at that time, probably the fact that the majority of the army equipment, heavy weaponry was in Tigray, probably they miscalculated and thought that for them to reinforce what they want, they chose war. For me, it is a miscalculation. I don’t know there are some arguments that the war was a must. Even if it was a must we should have stopped and talked about it, especially after the first couple of months after the effect on civilians, particularly on our poor population.

For us Ethiopians, no one can tell us the effect of war. We have experienced it; we are living witness to how war has torn down our socio- economical fabric and its impact on our political processes. So if they had thought about that at that time it could have been stopped. But it did not. That is fine. Now one year has passed. And do we know how much that has affected us in terms of productivity, in terms of the economic process, in terms of the social makeup? All these things are details the political elites should consider in the decisions they make, and understand how the consequences heavily impact the society at large. You make a decision based on certain evidence you have. When you are in there are intended and unintended consequences. When they started the war, the war didn’t produce the intended result.

The unintended consequence is much heavier than what they have achieved in terms of politics. Even in terms of politics TPLF has lost because by now everybody is against TPLF, although they think that they won diplomatically and that they have supporters globally, that is a loss. When you have a bad image globally that is a loss. Taking into consideration they should sit and then discussion.

For me conflict transformation requires skills. As a nation and as a person who has been involved in various analyses we don’t have good problem-solving skills. Violence is the only way. There are other ways to achieve what you want to achieve. Peace talk, dialogue … etc.

As you said earlier the people of Ethiopia have rich conflict prevention, reconciliation culture. How come such conflict happens inspite of the existence of such cultural values?

The conflict did not happen because communities sat down and decided to have a war, no. Rather, the political elites from the TPLF side decided to attack the military base of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), and the government responded to the initial attack. This happened because the political elites decided to act according to their will. From a defense perspective, the response is what any country would do when attacked.

But now when you look at our society, whether in the pastoralist area or highland area, conflict is inevitable. There are existing mechanisms where elders are involved, either at interpersonal level or community level, they sit down and discuss and then they have this indemnity, and in the reconciliation process, settlement process. There are different mechanisms. This has to be used to do the mediation process.

What do you think should stakeholders do to reinforce efforts of peacebuilding in the future?

Communal conflict happens when there is a clash between desires. The difference of interest is normal. Even at the family level there is a difference of interest. But to handle differences requires skill. You would hear people saying different things. Do they have appropriate information? I don’t think so. It only talks about something that can fulfil their interest. From this side activists make noise only talking about the effect on their side and denying the other side. There is a large number of people who do not have access to information.

You are telling me this what about this, then I do not think they would get appropriate information. So communication is important. Do we know what they want? Do we know the cause? That has to be communicated properly. This is not the role of only the government. Civic society organizations professional associations, NGOs media should play this idea of conflict transformation and also give an alternative to violence to solve differences among the community. There should be other means. One of the means is to talk about it, discuss it, dialogue about it. And look for an alternative solution than engaging in violence. It is not about talking about “violence is bad, the effect is this or that …” but also how I can tell you what I want to tell you without engaging in violence. Problem-solving, communication skills, having clear objectives is other. Those things can be promoted through CBOs, FBOs even the traditional elder system and also CSOs.

What do you expect from the proposed national dialogue that would take place soon?

We never have a system or culture where political differences are handled properly or peacefully and we did not build a system that enables you to live with a different philosophy than the mainstream. However, if this takes place it is a good idea, and all who have grievances should be at the table, this is our step forward. You can agree to disagree. If this dialogue is planned in a way to help us develop a civil political process it is a good thing. Our political process is not civilized. It is either my or highway, and we need to break away from it, I personally would like to see it.

This process should help us to hold political elites and groups to live together and work together for this country and then present their ideas in a nonviolent way. If that is the objective we are on the right track. But if it is again in the past like the TPLF led community consultation which is used to identify who is supporting or not, I don’t agree. If it is used for different groups to express their views in a nonviolent way and have a common vision, if we agree on certain things as a nation as long as we promote our politics using nonviolent means, I would say thumbs up.

What is the situation of social justice in Ethiopia? How does it help the efforts of sustainably addressing conflict in the country?

All citizens should be equally treated, same in the court of law. In the face of justice, people who are poor and people with money should have the same access to justice, the law should not protect those who are elite only. People who have relatives with official power, and those who do not must be the same in the court of law. That is one aspect. The other one is every citizen of this country should have equal access to the resources that this country has to offer. For example, in the past members of the EPRDF would get more benefits in terms of jobs or terms of access to financial services. There was political and economic favoritism based on political affiliation and that needs to stop. If the current regime wants to continue that way, that is not a just leadership. Economic and social and access to law and justice should be equally available for every member of this country. As a citizen of Ethiopia, jobs should be accessible for everybody, not for party-affiliated and financial services. So, unless and otherwise we achieve this we won’t end the conflict, even if the war is over. The consequences would be a grievance. If we don’t handle grievances some groups who can have access to arms will go back to violent conflict.

You are one of the thousands of diaspora community who are back home heeding to the call by the Prime Minister. How do you explain the role of the diaspora in overall national affairs?

The diaspora can be a source of remittance, just as the experience of many countries shows. The other contribution is knowledge transfer. When I am here I want to serve professionally with what I am trained. Especially now we have to train people how to handle communities that pass through a traumatic experience, so it is important to identify needs and do our best to meet them where we can. For instance, I see from news or media people just go and interview a raped woman or elderly or children and you see children on TV and that is extremely insensitive. That is unprofessional, and unethical. I want to train whoever is interested in this ethical responsibility and especially how to talk to traumatized people. Rape is a major crime. It is a fate not only physical but also psychological, emotional and social. So the fact that a person was raped by another person that itself gives a hugely traumatic experience for the individual, and whoever wants to talk to victims or help them in any way have to be aware and trained for that, it is a must. When people know that lady, girl or young man is raped that is another level of oppression, there is now everyone’s eyes on you, talking about you. It is not a good thing that people are allowed to show them in public without even covering their identity or providing them tangible support. Confidentiality is important.

In public diplomacy I am Ethiopian and I represent Ethiopia. Everywhere I go I have to tell without taking side. As an individual what I have been doing before I came was like whenever I had the opportunity to talk to diplomats or civil foreigners telling them what had happened. I have been using my social media accounts to tell the truth and dispel false writings. For example, many people across the world do not know that TPLF was governing this country, and other blatant truths have been hidden. So diaspora can expose what TPLF has been doing while they were in power, and continue the conflict now. I am proud of Ethiopians in the US and Europe. They have been doing their part in saying #NO MORE. The reason I decided to bring my family and myself is because I am infuriated at what the international community continues to say about Addis Ababa, majority of the “news” being reported is wrong. I can explain to them the truth and expose the false narratives that have been imposed on us as Ethiopians, and what better way to do it than to come home for holidays.

Finally, if you have any message you would like to pass to our readers, you are welcome.

For me loving a country is loving its people. As much as we can, we have to be compassionate. We have to empathize with those affected by all these violent conflicts happening in the country. It is not only in Amhara, Tigray, Afar but in Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia but everywhere. We have to be a voice for all of it is our issues we have to share the burden of, we can’t say “oh that doesn’t concern me so I don’t care” We have to care.

Seeing everybody the way I see myself, not as this group or that group, we should treat everybody equally and with the same care we extend to our families. My message, love your neighbor, whomever they are despite differences, and love is best seen through action. We have to treat each other as human beings. I have to treat a person the way I want to be treated. That is my principle.

For our country to progress and excel, wherever we are, whatever we have to do, we have to have that principle as a goal. This is because, my contribution as a cleaner, shoeshine or as a minister makes all the impact. At all levels, everybody is equally important, and we have to have hope.

I would like to say thank you for your time!

You are welcome!



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